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Commentary: College for all?

It’s hard to see the future. If you had been around during the Cretaceous Period, sixty-five million years ago, it would have been obvious that the world belonged to the huge and magnificent dinosaurs which dominated the planet.

Nobody would have paid much attention to the little rat-like things called mammals scurrying around the forest floors. But in the end, they would inherit the earth.

Similarly, nobody these days is paying very much attention to the Democrats in the Michigan Senate. There are only a dozen of them, too few to even block a bill from taking immediate effect.

They have essentially no power. But in recent months, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer has been increasingly finding her voice, and delivering more and more intelligent and focused criticism of the Republican agenda. Now, she has an issue that may well be,  a main theme in the next campaign for governor.

More than that, it is an important part of the debate over Michigan’s future. Everybody agrees that if this state is to have a prosperous future, we need a better-educated work force.

Fewer of our young adults have college educations than our surrounding states, in large part because for so many years you didn’t need higher education to make a good living in our assembly-line economy. Those days are gone, and are never coming back.

The state is strapped for cash as a result, and a few years ago, broke its promise to Michigan students and canceled the Michigan Promise scholarships. But now the Senate Minority Leader has a better idea. She wants to get rid of tax loopholes, and then use that money -- which she says would amount to nearly two billion dollars -- to pay for college educations for all Michigan high school students.

The Democrats are calling this the “Michigan 2020 plan.” You may be asking yourself, is that really realistic?

Frankly, this makes as much sense as giving your baby a proper balanced diet and making sure she has all her vaccinations. Lou Glazer, the president of the non-partisan think tank Michigan Future, told the Senate Finance Committee yesterday that in today’s economy, quote, “education has surpassed other resources as the driver of economic growth. The folks that have income, increasingly, are college-educated.”

He’s exactly right. Sadly, this proposal doesn’t have any chance of being enacted. The Republicans want to use that money to give more tax credits to businesses. Jack Brandenburg, the Senate Finance Committee chair, said yesterday “I don’t think the state can afford to do both.” Brandenburg, who founded an industrial supply business out of the trunk of his car many years ago, said “we really have to concentrate on getting our economy back on track.“

What Brandenburg doesn’t see, of course, is that our economy is radically changing. That’s a little odd, since he also has been known to complain how much it cost him to send his four kids to Michigan colleges.  The battle lines, however, are clear.

Senator Whitmer is making the future a priority; the ruling Republicans are increasingly, on the side of the past. And what went on before the Senate Finance Committee yesterday was an early skirmish in what is likely to be a very long and important war. 

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